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Understanding

Dyscalculia
By Amanda Morin
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What is dyscalculia?
How common is dyscalculia?
What causes dyscalculia?

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helpful?

What are the symptoms of dyscalculia?


What skills are affected by dyscalculia?

Yes

How is dyscalculia diagnosed?


What conditions are related to dyscalculia?

No

How can professionals help with dyscalculia?


What can be done at home for dyscalculia?
What can make the journey easier?

If youve been told your child may have dyscalculia, or if you suspect
your child has it, you may wonder how to help him. Dyscalculia is a
learning issue that causes serious math difficulties. It isnt as well-known
as dyslexia. However, some researchers now think it may be almost as
common.
Fortunately, there are many ways you and teachers can help your child.
Whether its strengthening math skills or boosting his self-esteem, there
are steps you can take.

What is dyscalculia?

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Dyscalculia:
What Youre
Seeing in Your
Grade-Schooler
Dyscalculia:
What Youre
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High-Schooler
Quiz: Test Your
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Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is a brain-based condition that makes it hard to make sense


of numbers and math concepts. Some kids with dyscalculia cant grasp
basic number concepts. They work hard to learn and memorize basic
number facts. They may know what to do in math class but dont
understand why theyre doing it. In other words, they miss the logic
behind it.

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Other kids understand the logic behind the math but arent sure how and
when to apply their knowledge to solving problems.
Dyscalculia goes by many names. Some public schools refer to it as a
mathematics learning disability. Doctors sometimes call it a
mathematics disorder. Many kids and parents call it math dyslexia.
Your childs struggle with math can be confusing, especially if hes doing

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well in other subjects. This can lead to anxiety and low self-esteem. But
parents have the power to change that equation.
There are many tools and strategies that can help with dyscalculia. The
trick is finding the ones that work best for your child. Dyscalculia is a
lifelong condition, but that doesnt mean your child cant be happy and
successful.

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Number Sense and Other Difficulties


Dyscalculia can affect many different areas of math learning and
performance. Different kids have different challenges.
The most common problem is with number sense. This is an intuitive
understanding of how numbers work, and how to compare and estimate
quantities on a number line. Most researchers agree that number sense
is at the core of math learning. If kids dont understand the basics about
how numbers work, learning math and using it every day can be very
frustrating.
Studies show that even babies have a basic sense of numbers.[1] Dr.
Brian Butterworth, a leading researcher in dyscalculia, compares
number sense to being color-blind. He says some people are born with
number blindness. This makes it hard to tell the difference between
quantities.[2]
Number blindness is one reason many kids have trouble connecting
numbers to the real world. They cant grasp the idea that five cookies
has the same number of objects as five cakes and five apples.
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How common is dyscalculia?


If you hadnt heard of dyscalculia until recently, youre not alone. It isnt
as widely discussed as dyslexia, and its not as well understood.
However, some researchers are beginning to think it may be almost as
common as dyslexia.[3,4]
It isnt clear how often kids identified with dyslexia would also meet the
criteria for dyscalculia. Both conditions can affect a childs ability to
understand math-related words.
Scientists cant say for sure how many children or adults have
dyscalculia. This is partly because different groups of researchers use
different criteria for what counts as severe math difficulties. There is no
central data bank for the research data on dyscalculia. That makes it
hard to estimate how many people it affects.
An estimated 6 to 7 percent of elementary school children may have
dyscalculia. Its not uncommon for kids to have more than one learning
issue. In fact, 56 percent of kids with a reading disorder also have poor
math achievement. And 43 percent of kids with a math disability have
poor reading skills.[5]
The good news is that all of these children can excel in other areas.[6]
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What causes dyscalculia?


Researchers dont know exactly what causes dyscalculia. But theyve
identified certain factors that indicate its a brain-based condition.
Here are some of the possible causes of dyscalculia:
Genes and heredity: Studies of dyscalculia show its more
common in some families. Researchers have found that a child
with dyscalculia often has a parent or sibling with similar math
issues. So dyscalculia may be genetic.[7]
Brain development: Researchers are using modern brain
imaging tools to study the brains of people with and without math
issues. What we learn from this research will help us understand
how to help kids with dyscalculia. The study also found differences
in the surface area, thickness and volume of parts of the brain.
Those areas are linked to learning and memory, setting up and

monitoring tasks and remembering math facts.[8]


Environment: Dyscalculia has been linked to exposure to alcohol
in the womb.[9] Prematurity and low birth weight may also play a
role in dyscalculia.[10]
Brain injury: Studies show that injury to certain parts of the brain
can result in what researchers call acquired dyscalculia.

For children with dyscalculia, its unclear how much their brain
differences are shaped by genetics and how much by their experiences.
Researchers are trying to learn if certain interventions for dyscalculia
can rewire a childs brain to make math easier. This concept is known
as neuroplasticity and has been shown to work in people with dyslexia.
[11]
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What are the symptoms of


dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia includes different kinds of math difficulties. Your childs
symptoms may not look exactly like those in another child. Observing
your child and taking notes to share with teachers and doctors are good
ways to find the best strategies and supports for your child.
The signs of dyscalculia also look different at different ages. Dyscalculia
tends to become more apparent as kids get older. But it can be detected
as early as preschool. Heres what to look for:
Warning Signs in Preschool or Kindergarten
Has trouble learning to count, especially when it comes to
assigning each object in a group a number
Has trouble recognizing number symbols, such as making the
connection between 7 and the word seven
Struggles to connect a number to a real-life situation, such as
knowing that 3 can apply to any group that has three things in it
3 cookies, 3 cars, 3 kids, etc.
Has trouble remembering numbers, and skips numbers long after
kids the same age can count numbers and remember them in the

right order
Finds it hard to recognize patterns and sort items by size, shape or
color
Avoids playing popular games like Candy Land that involve
numbers, counting and other math concepts

Warning Signs in Grade School or Middle School


Has trouble recognizing numbers and symbols
Has difficulty learning and recalling basic math facts, such as 2 + 4
=6
Struggles to identify +, and other signs and use them correctly
May still use fingers to count instead of using more sophisticated
strategies
Has trouble writing numerals clearly or putting them in the correct
column
Has trouble coming up with a plan to solve a math problem
Struggles to understand words related to math, such as greater
than and less than
Has trouble telling his left from his right, and has a poor sense of
direction
Has difficulty remembering phone numbers and game scores
Avoids playing games like Risk that involve number strategy
Has trouble telling time

Warning Signs in High School


Struggles to apply math concepts to everyday life, including money
matters such as estimating the total cost, making exact change
and figuring out a tip
Has trouble measuring things, like ingredients in a simple recipe
Struggles with finding his way around and worries about getting
lost
Has hard time grasping information shown on graphs or charts
Has trouble finding different approaches to the same math problem

Lacks confidence in activities that require estimating speed and


distance, such as playing sports and learning to drive

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What skills are affected by


dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia affects more than your childs ability to handle math class
and homework. Math skills and concepts are used everywhere from the
kitchen to the playground to the workplace.
Its understandable if youre concerned about the long-term impact of
dyscalculia on your childs life. But once you identify your childs
weaknesses, you can find ways to work around them by building on
strengths. Here are some everyday skills and activities your child may
find difficult:
Social skills: Failing repeatedly in math class can lead your child
to assume failure is inevitable in other areas too. Low self-esteem
can affect your childs willingness to make new friends or
participate in afterschool activities. He might also avoid playing
games and sports that involve math and keeping score.
Sense of direction: Your child might have trouble learning left
from right. He may have trouble getting places by reading maps or
following directions. Some kids with dyscalculia cant picture things
in their minds. Does your child have trouble imagining how a
building or other three-dimensional object would look if viewed from
another angle? If so, he may worry about getting lost when
changing classes, riding a bike or driving a car.
Physical coordination: Dyscalculia can affect how the brain and
eyes work together. So your child may have trouble judging
distances between objects. He may seem clumsier than other kids
the same age.
Money management: Dyscalculia can make it difficult to stick to a
budget, balance a checkbook and estimate costs. It can also make
it hard to calculate a tip and count exact change.
Time management: Dyscalculia can affect your childs ability to
measure quantities, including units of time. Your child may have
trouble estimating how long a minute is or keeping track of how

much time has passed. This can make it hard to stick to a


schedule.
Other skills: A child may have trouble figuring out how much of an
ingredient to use in a recipe. He might have a hard time estimating
how fast another car is moving or how far away it is.

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How is dyscalculia diagnosed?


If your child is having trouble with math, its a good idea to find out
exactly whats going on so you and your childs teachers can figure out
how to help. Less research has been done on dyscalculia than on some
other learning issues. That makes identifying the problem more
complicated.
Fortunately, theres a lot you can do to make the process easier. You
and your childs teachers can talk and keep notes about what types of
things your child has trouble doing or understanding. Those notes will
come in handy when you speak to your childs doctor or other healthcare providers about whats worrying you.
Theres no one specific test for dyscalculia. This means getting a
diagnosis can involve several steps:
Step 1: Get a medical exam. A medical exam isnt as formal as it
sounds. Its just you, your child and the pediatrician sitting down to talk
about your concerns. Together youll make a plan to find out if other
medical conditions are contributing to your childs learning difficulties.
Math issues are common in kids who have certain genetic disorders, in
kids who were born early and small, and in those with ADHD. If your
child has ADHD, it can be harder to tell whether his math issues are
caused by dyscalculia, ADHD or both.
Part of the initial medical exam can be done in the pediatricians office.
The doctor may refer you to a specialist such as a neurologist or
educational psychologist for more in-depth testing. Once doctors have
ruled out or identified medical problems, you can take the next step.
Step 2: See an educational professional. Look for a professional who
is trained to give tests to determine which math skills your child has
trouble with. This might be a school psychologist, or a private

psychologist or other professional.


If youre not given a referral, you can ask about getting one. This is
important because even if your child has another condition, such as
ADHD, your child may also have dyscalculia. Knowing which symptoms
are part of which condition will make it easier to find the most effective
strategies for your child.
The psychologist will talk to you about what struggles youre seeing and
will look over your childs medical and school records. He may also ask
your child to:
Count some dots. Some tests, like the Dyscalculia Screener
developed by Dr. Brian Butterworth, use dot-counting exercises to
get insights into a childs number sense.[12]
Count backwards. One frequently used test is the
Neuropsychological Test Battery for Number Processing and
Calculation in Children (NUCALC). It asks children to count
backwards and do other number exercises that involve writing or
talking. Dont let the word neuropsychological scare you. It simply
means that this test gives professionals a better idea how your
childs brain thinks about and makes sense of math.
Ask your child to copy shapes or draw them from memory.
Several different screening tools can test how your child sees and
understands shapes. If, for example, your child has a rectangleshaped block in front of him but cant pick out a card that shows
the same block from a different angle, it may indicate trouble with
visual-spatial skills.
Observe your child in the classroom. Many professionals will
want to see how your child interacts with math concepts in
everyday settings. Ask if the specialist will observe your child at
school.

Its always a good idea to prepare your child for his session with the
educational psychologist. You might explain that the doctor will play
some games with him. Assure him that he wont get a good or bad
grade. The doctor just wants to get to know him better.
If the doctor plans to observe your child at school, consult with the
doctor and teacher about how this will be explained to your child and his
classmates. Thoughtful preparation can help your child relax and be
himself.

Step 3: Put it all together. After examining your child, the psychologist
and pediatrician will look at the information gathered. Some
psychologists will feel comfortable giving you an informal opinion right
away. Others may want to wait until theyve scored the tests.
If the psychologist wants to wait, ask for an idea of how long it will be
before the formal report is ready. Consider scheduling an appointment to
come back and go over the results. Having this appointment on the
professionals calendar may help make sure the report is completed in
that time frame.
If your child is found to have dyscalculia, you may want to talk with the
school about getting an Individualized Education Program (IEP). That
program will detail all the different things the school will do to help your
child learn math in ways that make the most sense for him.
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What conditions are related to


dyscalculia?
It isnt unusual for kids to be diagnosed with dyscalculia and another
medical condition. Doctors refer to co-existing conditions as being
comorbid. Certain conditions can easily be confused for dyscalculia
because they have some of the same symptoms.
Conditions that often exist withor are misdiagnosed asdyscalculia
are:
Dyslexia: Children are often diagnosed with dyslexia and
dyscalculia. Researchers have found that 4365 percent of kids
with math disabilities also have reading disabilities.[13]
ADHD: Children are often diagnosed with dyscalculia and ADHD.
But some math errors can be explained by inattention to detail and
other characteristics of ADHD. So some experts recommend
reevaluating math skills after getting ADHD symptoms under
control.[14]
Math anxiety: Children with math anxiety are so worried about the
prospect of doing math that their fear and nervousness can lead to
poor performance on math tests. Some kids may have both math
anxiety and dyscalculia.
Genetic disorders: Dyscalculia is associated with several genetic

disorders including fragile X syndrome, Gerstmanns syndrome


and Turners syndrome.[15]

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How can professionals help with


dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia isnt as well-known as other learning issues, such as
dyslexia. You may need to be persistent to get schools and doctors to
take a closer look at your childs struggles with math.
Here are people who can help:
Your Childs Teachers
If your child has been identified with dyscalculia and is eligible for
special education services, you and the school will come up with a plan
of supports and accommodations. These may include giving extra time
for tests or letting your child use a calculator.
But even without a diagnosis, your childs school can do several things
to help your child succeed.
Response to intervention (RTI) is a program some schools use to
provide extra help to students who are falling behind. If your childs
school uses RTI, routine screenings identify which kids need to
bone up on certain skills. Then those children will receive smallgroup instruction either within or outside of their regular classroom.
If your child who doesnt make enough progress in a small group,
then the program will give your child more intensive one-on-one
instruction.
Informal supports are strategies teachers often use to help
struggling students. Enlisting the support of your childs teacher is
an important step. Set up a meeting to talk about your mutual
concerns. Ask if the teacher is willing to keep a journal of how your
child responds to different strategies or math-related activities.

You can do the same at home and compare notes. Here are some
common strategies teachers use to help kids with dyscalculia:
Using concrete examples that connect math to real life, to
strengthen your childs number sense. Examples: sorting buttons

or other familiar objects.


Using visual aids when solving problems, including drawing
pictures or moving around physical objectswhich teachers refer
to as manipulatives.
Assigning manageable amounts of work so your child wont feel
overloaded.
Reviewing a recently learned skill before moving on to a new one,
and explaining how the skills are related.
Supervising work and encouraging your child to talk through the
problem-solving process. This can help make sure hes using the
right math rules and formulas.
Breaking new lessons into smaller parts that easily show how
different skills relate to the new concept. Teachers call this
process chunking.
Letting your child use graph paper to help keep numbers lined up.
Using an extra piece of paper to cover up most of whats on a math
test so your child can focus on one problem at a time.
Playing math-related games designed to help your child have fun
and feel more comfortable with math.
After trying some informal accommodations, you or the school
may recommend getting a 504 plan. This is a written plan detailing
how the school will accommodate your childs needs.
Accommodations can include things like letting a child:
Have more time to take a test.
Answer fewer questions on a test.
Record lessons and lectures.
Use a calculator in class.

Another option is to have your child evaluated for special education


services. This will determine whether your child qualifies for an
Individualized Education Program (IEP).
An IEP gives you access to more resources, such as assistive
technology to help with calculating and other math skills. Either you or
the school can request an evaluation.

Tutors
A tutor can work with your child individually or in a small group. This can
help your child focus on mastering the basics and practice skills. A tutor
may be able to come up with alternative ways to help your child
understand and use math concepts.
Your Childs Doctor
Sometimes dyscalculia can take such a toll on your childs self-esteem
that anxiety and depression can set in. Talk to your pediatrician about
your concerns. A psychologist or other mental health professional might
be able to help your childand youmanage stress.
Parent Advocates
A valuable resource are nonprofit parent advocacy centers. These
centers are staffed by parents of children with disabilities. They know
how to advocate for their kids and can help you do the same. Theres at
least one center in every state.[16]
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What can be done at home for


dyscalculia?
Parenting a child with dyscalculia can be challenging, especially if youve
never been confident in your own math skills. But you dont have to be a
math expert. Below are several ways you can help improve your childs
ability to work with numbers. Improving math skills could strengthen his
self-esteem and resilience.
Keep in mind that kids (and families) are all different. It takes trial and
error to see what suits you and your child. But finding the right strategies
and seeing improvement can boost everyones confidence.
Dont panic if the first strategies you try arent effective. You may need to
try different approaches to find out what works best for your child. Here
are some things you can try at home:
Learn as much as you can. Understanding the nature of
dyscalculia is a good first step toward helping your child strengthen
math-related skills. Let your child know that you understand what
hes going throughand that you dont think hes lazy, unmotivated
or not smart. This can give him the encouragement he needs to
keep working on that thorny math problem. It may also reduce

some of the anxiety or feelings of inferiority he may be


experiencing.
Play math games. Practicing number concepts can improve skills
and help reduce anxiety at school. Use household objects such as
toys, grapes or pairs of socks as often as you can to help connect
numbers to everyday activities. Try not to dwell on it or force these
games on your child. That might make your child more anxious.
Learning is easier when kids are happy and relaxed.
Create a homework station. Help your child be more productive
during homework time by carving out a space that has as few
distractions as possible. You can also help your child by breaking
assignments down in smaller, more manageable steps, such as
doing five math problems and then taking a break before working
on the next five problems.
Cozy up with the calculator. For kids who have trouble
remembering basic math facts, a calculator can help them focus
on using reasoning and problem solving. These skills are highly
valued in the workplacewhere using a calculator isnt considered
cheating!
Boost confidence. Identify your childs strengths and use them to
work on (or work around) weaknesses. Activities that tap into your
childs interests and abilities can help improve self-esteem and
increase your childs resilience. Check out the behavior strategies
written by our team of experts. Try to pace yourself and dont use
more than one strategy at a time. That makes it easier to tell which
ones are producing a good result.
Help your child keep track of time. Whether its a hand on the
shoulder, a few key words or a cell phone alarm, have a system in
place to remind your time-challenged child when to start the next
activity.
See what it feels like. Use Through Your Childs Eyes to
experience what its like to have dyscalculia. Acknowledging that
you understand what your child is going through is another way to
boost his confidence.
Be upbeat. Let your child know when you see him do something
well. Praising effort and genuine achievement can help your child
feel loved and supported. It can also give your child the confidence
to work harder at building skills and help him stay motivated to try
new things.